Evicted: The Socio-Legal Case for the Right to Housing - A Book Review of Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Crown Publishers, New York, 2016)
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Matthew Desmond's Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is a triumphant work that provides the missing socio-legal data needed to prove why America should recognize housing as a human right. Desmond's masterful study of the effect of evictions on Milwaukee's urban poor in the wake of the 2008 U.S. housing crisis humanizes the evicted, and their landlords, through rich and detailed ethnographies. His intimate portrayals teach Evicted's readers about the agonizingly difficult choices that low-income, unsubsidized tenants must make in the private rental market. Evicted also reveals the contradictions between "law on the books" and "law-in-action." Its most significant contribution to American housing and poverty scholarship is the socio-legal data it provides to demonstrate the high economic and social costs America pays for its failure to consider housing a basic human right. Indeed, Desmond ultimately calls for an American right to housing and presents law and policy solutions in Evicted to advance such a right. This Essay argues that Desmond's mostly federal legal prescriptions are insufficient to help all Americans realize the full promise of the human right to housing . American cities should also enact local ordinances that legitimate new housing arrangements in order to fully realize the human right to housing. Part I argues that Evicted's stories show that the law operates differently in poor housing markets than in traditional markets, and that poor residents are differently situated in low-income housing markets based upon their age, sex, gender, race, and ethnicity. In this context, traditional housing laws are often a cause of, rather than a solution to, housing inequality and insecurity. Evicted also reveals that poor tenants and their landlords make informal bargains that often undermine the goals of numerous housing-related laws and sacrifice poor residents' dignity. Part II builds on Desmond's legal and policy prescriptions by providing examples of how cities can codify the right to housing at the local level through resolutions and ordinances that legitimate more equitable housing arrangements. Part II further asserts that the right to housing is a legal tool that can help localities manage and effectively internalize the mounting economic and social costs of increasing inequality in American housing markets. If, in the face of retracting federal government support for housing the poor and working-class, localities enact laws that reflect the human right to housing, they may be able to encourage the private sector and civil society to work with them to create housing markets that reduce evictions and better respond to people's housing needs.
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